One of the greatest cultural markers of British comics is their fascination with war topics. Many great comic writers cut their teeth on works like Charley’s War – a seminal and complete look at the exploits of a young Englishman who, like many others, enlisted in the army to serve in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Seen as “The War to End All Wars”, World War I was unique in that it was the first modern war that was built upon the expectations of all others to that point in history. Titan’s new omnibus volume, Charley’s War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War, collects the entire comic series and is a complete examination of the major episodes of that war seen through the eyes of a lower-class Londoner kid.
Drawn by the legendary Joe Colquhoun and written by the equally accomplished Pat Mills, Charley’s War appears to be an extremely simplistic comic strip. Upon closer examination though, the simplistic presentation of events allows the reader to formulate his or her own opinions about the events and foments discussion and reflection about them.
Charley Bourne is an everyman character; he has no political ambitions and is caught up in the patriotic fervour that swept over England in the early days of the War. King and Country were more of a concern than the demands of everyday life and easily brushed aside any thoughts of personal safety. It was thought that the war would be over in a matter of a few months and Charley epitomizes this public opinion with his desire to enlist at the start of the war and at a young age.
Brevity is a key feature of British comics. In a short series of panels, Mills quickly shows the reader that even by 1916, it was still thought that the war would be over fairly soon. His dialogue is short and emotionally rich and possessing of a humour that can only be described as completely Army. In one panel, an officer confers with a subordinate about the nature of the new arrivals’ intelligence from France. The sergeant replies that’s the way he likes them: “Soldiers what are ‘clever-dicks’ get to thinking, Sir – and we can’t have that … thinking’s against regulations!”
While the stories are brief, their historical content is fully descriptive. Colquhoun’s art is a thoroughly detailed representation of the battlefield. We are shown the squalid living conditions of the trenches, the cratered landscape of ‘No-Man’s Land’ and the adaptations the soldiers enacted in order to survive. Colquhoun’s incredibly detailed art rushes us through Charley’s basic training to his deployment in France and his introduction to his squad sergeant, “Old Bill”, taking a bath in a fetid water-filled shell-hole.
Charley’s War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War is an amazing omnibus that eventually culminates in a collection of ten volumes, this is a riveting tale. While completely historical in nature, what fully drives this home is Charley’s growth throughout the war years. While Charley initially signs up as a sixteen year old volunteer, his experiences throughout the Great War age him prematurely. By the end of the first volume, Charley may have only physically aged a few months, but he has amassed the traumatic experiences of a shell-shocked veteran.
Titan Books has performed nothing short of a vibrant homage to this hallmark story that is already legendary among British comics. The introduction and the accompanying articles add a combined poignancy of pat Mills’ own personal recollections of working on this story along with the historical chronology of the story throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s. If anything, this should not only be required reading for comic lovers but also historians to get a personal – albeit fictional – perspective of the tragedy of World War One.